Picking Winners

Curiosity has always served me well, as long as I don’t take it as far the proverbial dead cat. As in “curiosity killed the cat.” I was once asked if I were to get a tattoo what would it be? For me, a simple question mark would suffice.

Today, two questions recur more than others in my mind. Why doesn’t  ____ work anymore in America? And, who will win? The first question has manifested as a genre of frustrating dreams that visit me in the night. I call them “nothing works” dreams. Not nightmares (at least not yet) inasmuch as they are highly farcical (at least so far). Themes include travel, or interfacing with our healthcare system, or financial system, or most anything where we are connected to a digital interface or still-slightly-human-soon-to-be-robot like a gate agent or TSA agent in an airport.

I now pine for the days when I was frustrated trying to understand the call center attendee (a human!) located in Mumbai. Now, whatever digital interface I connect to rarely understands me. In a dystopic terminus of this genre of dreams, I wonder if someday we will just have to pull all these plugs and start over. Disconnect. Like, completely. Do we really need toasters to notify us when we are running low on bread? If we do have to disconnect, I snicker at the prospect that only people over sixty years of age will be able to function.

However, for this post, I will set aside the “nothing works” question and focus on the second question: who will win?   Russia? Ukraine? Democrats? Republicans? Trump? Biden? Democracy? Fascism? Climate deniers or activists? The list of questions is long. The consequences are not just enormous, they are existential. The fate of democracy, freedom, self-determination, the environment, and even humanity hangs in the balance.

Yes, we live in proverbial interesting times. Perplexing times. Scary times. Pivotal times. Prevailing will take all of our courage, our empathy, our ingenuity, our resources, and our willpower. We must address each day with calm resolve and determination with truth and love as our guiding lights. Like-minded folks must lock arms and move forward, one step after another.

About four decades ago, my little mind settled on a formula/methodology that has endured over all these years to organize strategies and predict winners in any competition or conflict. I share it for your benefit to at least make sense of what may happen and inform what to do.

In shorthand it is R, I, W where R=RESOURCES; I=INTELLIGENCE; and W=WILLPOWER. Resources include money, materials (from natural resources to weapons), and human capital. Intelligence are things like knowledge, data, computing capacity, learning skills, leadership, and decision-making skills. Willpower is courage, drive, and passion. My thesis, which has been proven time and again, holds that in any competition or conflict the winning side must capture two of three flags, one of which must be W. Resources and intelligence are not sufficient; it takes either one of those plus W to prevail. W is essential. Of course, capturing all three flags produces overwhelming victories, but that seldom happens in the real, hotly contested, world.

It doesn’t matter if it is Russia v. Ukraine, Appalachian State v. Texas A&M, or David v. Goliath, if you have W on your side, you have a realistic shot at victory.

In late February, Russia had both R and I on their side. They had vastly larger R and, because they knew what, where, and when they would attack, and airborne reconnaissance to support them, they had I on their side as well. But they never had W. Russia was in the necessary-but-not-sufficient box when it comes to a winning combination. Ukraine has always owned the W flag. Since February, Ukraine has been able (with the support of allies) to draw even if not ahead in I, and because of depletions of Russia’s R and Ukraine’s acquisition of more R, Russia is now on its heels. Ukraine has advanced (at least relatively) in R.

If these trends continue, and Ukraine can capture either R or I flags, they should prevail since it is unlikely they will ever lose W. Putin would be wise to make a deal sooner than later. Will he? Highly doubtful. Pride and ego are dangerous things. He may even reach for nuclear Rs as a last hope of winning. He loves showing off his pecs, why not his nukes? Eventually, the conflict will probably succumb (as most wars do) to mutual fatigue with Ukraine badly wounded but with its borders largely intact. Putin will be humiliated and perhaps deposed, and Russia will take generations to recover while it endures its new dependency on China.

So, what about American politics? Dems, Reps, Trump, Biden, et al? Now you know that the most essential question is: who has the W flag? All sides will deploy ridiculous amounts of R. I, too, should be a tossup. Let’s look at W. Inasmuch as this is the squishy/qualitative (not easily measured) factor, it is more difficult to assess.

In 2016, Trump and the Reps owned W. Trump did a masterful job of stoking W through the deployment of fear, anger, and racism. (W can be fostered through either positive or negative levers.) His supporters turned rabid in their W. Meanwhile, Clinton conveyed a snarky sense of entitlement and dismissed Trump supporters as “deplorables,” which only intensified their W. Really dumb. And, yes, (for my Dem friends) I know she won the popular vote, but she didn’t win the presidency, period. She never had the W.

In 2020, Biden had a narrow margin in W and the outcome reflected this margin. His W was largely garnered by his supporters’ outrage at Trump. Trump’s W waned a bit as is often the case for incumbents; his supporters had it their way for four years (unlike coming off the Obama presidency in 2016) and W dipped. (Voter turnout is one measure/proxy for W; fundraising is another—albeit both lagging indicators. Voter registration is a leading indicator, but may also be affected by other realities.)

In this year’s midterms, history suggests it will be a wipeout for Dems. But keep an eye on W. If the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade produces as much W as it did in the abortion vote in Kansas, it could be an ahistorical election. It is also possible that disdain for Trump’s antics with his many legal problems among former Trump voters will diminish his W. This may be combined with further waning W among historical Trump voters due to his overexposure and status as a quasi-incumbent. (Incidentally, Reps are well ahead of Dems in voter registration, but that may be just an administrative/capacity advantage that may not translate to W.) Remember, relativity counts. R and I held equal, the relative winner of W should prevail.

In 2024? Who knows. It is too early to get a sense of W. And, W can shift much faster than R or I. As of today, neither Trump nor Biden have captured the 2024 W flag. Whichever candidate or party do the best job of stoking W (positively or negatively) will have the upper hand. And now, let me give you the proverbial joker-in-the-deck.

R, I, W predicts winners when the playing field fundamentally and fairly follows the rules of the market, nature, norms, or laws. Which is probably why the Reps are attempting to rig the game with voter suppression, gerrymandering, and otherwise manipulating the vote of the people, including allowing secretaries of state and legislatures to ignore voting outcomes. In this case, W doesn’t matter (and neither do R or I). That’s why they call it a rigged game. We know this about MAGA world: they will do anything to win before, during, or after election day. Norms and laws be damned. It will take many heroes-of-democracy across America to assure this does not happen.

Play with this back-of-the-napkin methodology in making your own predictions or guiding your own strategies. It is basic, but also has proven itself a very useful tool. On climate change, for instance, W is a big problem. Disasters may help stoke W, but thus far, consequences have been too remote to affect W. Of course, by the time it does it will likely be too late. (Argh!) Environmental activists have also been out-resourced by corporate coffers. Polluting interests own the R flag. I? Yes, environmentalists have that on their side, but without W few seem to engage with their I (or at least not enough). Millions do indeed have climate-change-W but, unfortunately, it takes billions. Such a mess. But, understandable in the context of R, I, W.

Hang in there. It is going to be a wild ride. Oh, and Happy Equinox (Thursday).

By |2022-09-18T15:09:51+00:00September 18th, 2022|Current, General|0 Comments

Twelve Contemplations for a Better Tomorrow

Are we there yet?

Kids have no sense of time, which has annoyed parents since the automobile first started rambling across America in the early twentieth century. While parents ruminate about the past and worry about the future, kids just live in the here and now. “What’s for lunch?” is as far as they look forward and yesterday is easily forgotten. In the last few years, however, both kids and adults were on the same page: would the present never end? We all seemed stuck; triangulated between the forces of fear, bewilderment, and boredom. Our world oscillated like a gyroscope with a slightly bowed axis, leaving us in a dizzied state of disorientation. As if we were walking through a hall of mirrors where our reflection is distorted and we struggle to recognize our likeness. Familiarity seemed always just beyond our comprehension. Normal? Get real.

To muddle things further, since the presidency of Trump and the pandemic, it seems we can’t get anything done. Collective action for the greater good has succumbed under the weight of divisive malice. Innovation of any kind, from technology to popular culture has been in a Covid-induced stupor, and violence has become the prevailing currency of all disputes. Notwithstanding the many so-called influencers who pursue fandom on social media, our culture entered a period of mind-numbing stasis. Been wowed by a new technology lately? Inspired by a new young leader? Seen a great new movie? Listened to stunning new music? Been enthralled by a new author? Neither have I. I expect someday historians may look back at this era and call it the Big Dark Pause. The life expectancy of Americans has dropped two years in a row—for the first time in over one-hundred years in 2020, and the second in 2021. There is nothing darker than premature death.

However, this too shall pass.

In historical context, pauses like the current one signal a pivot point after which a new direction, with predictably hopeful enthusiasm, is set anew. We move forward with new norms, expectations, and inspirations. In the meantime, pauses also offer an opportunity to recenter the self in a manner to affect personal orientations and dispositions. To find light in the darkness. Now is the time to prepare, before the gyroscope’s axis straightens. Crises always offer opportunities if we are willing to do the work.

I received a number of inquiries following my August 2 post: “The Identity Trap: Suffering or Transcendence?” that described four phases of life and the keys to avoiding suffering in the last quarter in favor of transcendence. Several readers asked for more input on their own quest to reset their lives as we emerge from our current malaise. What follows here are a number of contemplations to consider. My own journey has been informed by two ancient philosophies: Stoicism and Mindfulness. From Seneca to Buddha. Each is unique. Each is powerful. I have found both to be extremely valuable.  I also realized that the only way to make sense of either was through immersion. Between language, time period, and cultural differences, it is difficult to assimilate much of the knowledge that can appear abstract, circular, and paradoxical to the modern western mind. In addition, the confusion one must endure from many teachers using different definitions for the same terms can be quite frustrating. So, my synthesis of contemplations (after wading and wallowing through many books, podcasts, and lectures) is offered below as a utilitarian guide to a personal reset. I have attempted, as best I can, to extract the essence of the ancients in a manner that is both understandable and useful for people like me; for people like you.

Here you go:

  1. Get naked. (Metaphorically, of course.) If you are over forty-five, let go of your carefully crafted identity you wear like a suit of armor. It may have served you well when you were younger, but if you want to live your life on the path to tranquility rather than suffering—you need to let go of your identity and give your ego a much-needed rest. Our psyche, formed from our beliefs, knowledge, experiences, fears, preferences, and prejudices gets way too much playing time. Keep your heart and mind open. Learning is essential. Focus on crafting wisdom rather than hardening your identity. Being naked as a default state leaves all your options open. You can wear what you want to fit the situation and its circumstances. And, no one will accuse you of becoming a bore—you will never go out of style!
  2. Reality is what it is. Let it be. Manage your relationship with reality rather than trying to affect reality itself. I have always been a big believer in manifesting my own destiny; in controlling outcomes in my favor. After years of banging my head against that wall, I have awakened to the fact that most outcomes have nothing to do with factors within our control. Thinking otherwise is admirable, but delusional. That is not to say I do not believe one person can’t have an extraordinary impact on the achievement of a particular goal, just that there are too many exogenous variables—outside of our control—that have influence on results in a world that is now as integrated and complex as ours. And, in the last few years, exogenous variables have played a ferocious role in outcomes. Mitigating risk has become an extraordinary challenge. Shifting your control-freak disposition to your relationship with reality—as it is—rather than believing you can affect reality directly is a much saner way to live.
  3. Die to live. If today was the last day of your life, would you die in peace? If not, why not? Make a list of the why-nots. First, eliminate bucket-list items: things you want to do that amount to little more than ego-satisfiers. It doesn’t mean you eliminate them from your pursuits, but recognize that they are actually superficial in the scheme of dying in a state of peace. Then, identify each item on the remaining list as in your control, or out of your control. Discard—cross out—those items out of your control. This can be difficult, but it makes no sense to trouble yourself with items that you can do nothing about—for whatever reason. Most unresolved issues that remain will come in three flavors: obligations, dependencies, and conflicts. Finally, work your list. The goal is to eliminate as many items as is possible. Once that is done you may die in peace. Of course, you won’t—at least not on that day—but here’s the big payoff: every next day is a gift! Every next day can be enjoyed in a state of liberation. One last caveat: after your liberation, don’t add anything else to that list in the future. That would just be dumb.
  4. Now is all that matters. Be that kid in the backseat of the station wagon again. Stay present. There is absolutely nothing you can do about the past. Throw away that rearview mirror. Dwelling is dangerous for both mental and physical health. Look to the future to foster hope and aspiration, but don’t fool yourself about expected outcomes. The only moment you can affect with some certainty is the present. Focus on mastery in the moment, one moment at a time. It doesn’t matter if you are washing dishes or performing before a large audience. Everyone benefits: the dishes, the audience, and you. And, those close to you will suddenly find you much more interesting if you pay attention to them in the moment.
  5. No regrets nor desires. Regrets are about the past and desires are about the future; they are not the now (see #4 above). Moreover, they reflect a dissatisfaction with reality (see #2 above). Their biggest problem, however, is that the give suffering a handhold—a place to land. Virtually all of our suffering comes from wanting things to be other than they are. Regrets and desires cause depression and often lead to rash decision-making when coupled with debilitating ruminations. Some people live their entire lives litigating regrets and chasing desires. We have all known one or more of them. They are human wrecking balls. The better aim is contentment, which is a core element of grace—of practicing courteous goodwill.
  6. Play the inner game. Internal, not external. The inner game is one that is entirely within our control—where the outcome is certain. External is conditional, which means, by definition, is out of our control. Friends are conditional, and unfortunately spouses are too. Even the pledge of unconditional love is conditioned upon its pledge and honor of the pledger. Happiness can also be conditional if it depends on anything external. To quote William Ernest Henley’s poem, you can be the “master of my fate” and “captain of my soul” if you focus on the inner game. Mastering the inner game will make you stronger than any threat you face in life; the fiercest of warriors and most certain victor. Steel thyself. Be your own best friend. Engage with all the rest with a level of prudent circumspection. Trust others to do what they believe is in their best interest and you will seldom, if ever, feel betrayed. Finally, as the Stoics remind us: it is not what happens that matters, it is how you respond to what happens that matters.
  7. The only thing that is permanent is impermanence. Nothing lasts. A frustrated student of a Buddhist monk once asked him to define the philosophy of Buddhism in one sentence. The monk did it in two words: “everything changes.” Everything comes and everything goes. This reality affects both the desirable and the undesirable. Fighting change, as with regrets and desires (see #5, above) is a surefire pathway to suffering. This is one of the reasons why clinging, clutching, and grasping are futile. Let it be and let it go. Masochism is not a pathway to transcendence and peace. Reckless reaction and/or determined resistance will not defeat impermanence. Your willpower is better aimed at letting life be life. Your ego will fight you mightily on this, which is why you must redirect your will to achieve a sense of mindful equanimity.
  8. Simplify. Happiness is simple, it is simplicity that is hard. It is so easy to complicate our lives. The principal beneficiary of complexity is our ego. How many times have you spoken to a friend or family member and sat patiently while they rattled off how busy, complicated, and overwhelming their life is? They are seeking acknowledgment from you to accomplish one thing: feed their ego. Yes, life is busy and can be very hard. But the difficulty is largely of our own making. The vast majority of our responsibilities and burdens in the modern era are self-inflicted. All too often complexity is driven by regrets and desires (see #5, above). We feel we must expand our lives to find happiness. New toys, experiences, friends, and lovers. Want happiness? Seek simplicity. Learn to discard and learn to stop yourself before you reach for that next shiny object. That next Amazon box will not make you happy.
  9. Fear and anger are toxic. And, they are levers of manipulation—your manipulation. I know no person on the planet that understands this better than Donald Trump. It is how he became president and could be again. Fear and anger act to diminish our power in two ways. The good news is that both are in our control. First, clutching fear and anger cause us to act in ways that violate our fundamental values. Among other things, this creates internal conflict—cognitive dissonance—that is the foundation of mental illness, from simple depression to more disabling mental disorders. Second, if we are provoked by fear and anger our reaction only accomplishes one thing: the transfer of power from ourselves to the provocateur. Action? Good. Reaction? Bad. I am forever amazed at how people take offense and display anger—even hatred—over name calling. Being triggered (to invoke a fashionable term of victimhood) is the moment when the triggered transfers power to the offender. In a state of fear and anger, we can be made to do almost anything; seldom in our own best interest. Why would anyone do that? Keep your power for yourself.
  10. Leave things better than you found them. One of three key American cultural dispositions that truly made America great, which I wrote about more extensively in Saving America in the Age of Deceit, is the disposition of perfectibility. It is based in the simple belief that we can improve the world we live in and have an obligation—even patriotic duty—to do so. At the very minimum, we must not make things worse (as seems to be the current popular political modality for far too many of our leaders). Buddhism in particular sees this through the belief in connectedness of all living beings (sentient or not). Rejecting separatism (which is an unfortunate western tradition) means we have an obligation to fulfill ourselves and improve the welfare of other beings, each and every day. As the predominant actor on earth, we should accept the responsibility of taking on the greatest challenges for all living beings consistent with the proportional nature of equity. If we did, among other things, addressing climate change would be a no-brainer.
  11. Practice gratitude—focus your passion on the good. It starts with being aware enough in your life to occasionally pause and let the good land. Then, savor it. I have twelve sources of gratitude that I read back to myself every day; more than once a day if necessary to keep dark clouds away. It is amazing what an elixir gratitude can be. We live on one of the most amazing planets in the entire universe and on one of the most diverse and dynamic continents on that planet in a country that tries (at least historically) to respect our right of self-determination. Vitality and freedom. We are truly blessed. Things could be way Besides being uplifting, gratitude is also empowering. Acting from a position of gratefulness conveys humility and garners instant credibility. The difference between manipulation and persuasion is whose interest is being served. Serving yourself is manipulation; serving others affects persuasion. The sincerely grateful one is the persuasive one.
  12. Love-and-respect, love-and-respect, repeat, repeat, repeat. Why live otherwise? It is what you want for yourself, so why not treat others in the same manner? This is the most fundamental tenet of all world religions. Pastors, priests, imams, monks, and rabbis may not practice it, but that does not excuse you. Many of our political and business leaders don’t practice it, which is why they must go. Love-and-respect is a grassroots revolution. It starts with each and every one of us. I don’t care if you are a woke Democrat, or a MAGA Republican—quit hating each other. You are only hurting yourself (see #9, above). Every being on the planet wants to be seen, heard, and appreciated. We all have good days and bad. We all have both anxieties and aspirations. Lighten someone’s load and yours will lighten too. If we are to have any chance of saving humanity, we must get this through our thick skulls, and soon. Mother Nature is losing her patience.

I know there is a lot here. Sweet peace does not happen overnight. If you pursue a personal reset, do so with quiet determination. Persevere. You will not achieve perfection—nobody does. Treat your reset as a journey rather than a destination. Your new world awaits. And, it needs you now more than ever.

By |2022-09-18T15:02:25+00:00September 4th, 2022|General|0 Comments

Numbered Days

An empty creel; no fish today.

The river shallows and narrows

under the weight of humanity.

We have mastered a destiny

that is no longer ours.

 

Our magnificent science

conquered them all.

Hunger, disease, immobility;

the inhabitable made habitable.

We are the genus to end all species.

 

Air, water, and soil wail a cry of death,

while humans whine for their just desserts.

Sacrifice does not compute

inside the algorithms of our desires.

Ignorance and greed depose humility.

 

Our days numbered; forget infinity.

Carcinogens are our special legacy.

Science did what we asked,

now we plead for forgiveness.

While Nature’s wisdom winks again.

 

We will pass; the earth will heal.

~~~~~~~~~~

In every mountain valley there is a spine of life and wisdom. We call them rivers.

Sometimes they rage in a torrent forming rapids. At other times they wane to a trickle. They give life to thousands of plants and animals and, if we pay attention, tell us everything we need to know about life.

I enjoy fly fishing, which is my way of connecting with the river. I have found no better way to learn the lessons of the river. To feel it’s energy and hunt its bounty of trout. I am one of those who has never kept a trout once landed; I prefer to return its life to the river. To take only learnings with me. And there are a multitude of learnings. As I have grown older, I spend as much time observing the river as I do fishing its pools and riffles. There is so much to learn just by being there. Life force. Flow. Equanimity.

As I watch the West dry up and predictions of 125-degree days enter our future, I can’t help but wonder when we will awaken to our fate. Maybe science will save us, but I have given up on our will. We can’t even treat each other with dignity and respect, I doubt we will find any greater sense of duty for our land. It is when we treat people differentially—as better than or less than one another—that the fabric that binds us begins to fray. We are headed for threadbare status; torn to tatters. It is a precursor to societal and, eventually, civilizational collapse.

Mother nature will win; she will cleanse the earth. She has for untold millennia. What we leave behind will fall and be covered by new life. The scars we leave behind will heal. And, the trout will smile a clumsy but knowing grin. The river will be theirs, again.

By |2022-09-04T13:47:10+00:00August 17th, 2022|General, Recent|0 Comments

The Identity Trap: Suffering or Transcendence?

At birth, our identity—our answer to Who am I?—is simple: human. Yes, most of us have a discernible gender, which historically was also a given, but today is considered “assigned.” And, we now have some flexibility to change that later in life through medical intervention and the re-selection of pronouns. We also enter the world with other markers of identity emanating from our inheritance of genes, skin color, and ethnicity, but this is also true: at the moment we come hollering into the world, we are as close to a clean slate as we will ever be for the rest of our life. The twist I am proposing here, which is contrary to what most Americans practice in our slice of Western culture, is that in the latter stages of life we should, in order to achieve a sense of what I call “sweet peace” prior to death, seek a return to that clean slate.

As we progress through the four quarters of life—preparation, achievement, actualization, and transcendence—we add and subtract identifiers through everything from the clothes we wear, to our affiliations and associations, to family and personal relationships, to the knowledge and beliefs we call our own. This constellation of identifiers are a mix of self-selections and social impositions. We decide on many of them by ourselves while others are laid upon us by society, about which we can either embrace or reject, but about which we have little say. This reality is complicated further by the fact that our identifiers define our self-perception of who we are, which is seldom, if ever, the same perception others have of us, and about which we have limited awareness. The construction of our identity is a messy process, but is widely held by psychologists as critical to our mental health and general well-being. The answer to Who am I?, drives much of our decision-making that plots—both directionally and strategically—the arc of our life. The search for meaning and purpose—Why am I here?—is heavily influenced by our constructed identity, whether curated or imposed.

By day two of our life, the process of identity construction is underway. Throughout the early years of the first quarter (preparation phase) of our life, our parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, coaches, and friends are the key influencers of our identity. During this phase, the scales of which identifiers are self-selected and which are imposed tips heavily in the direction of imposed. Socialization and indoctrination are the dominant processes in our lives until we gain enough of our own knowledge (acquired empirically and experientially) to tip the scales to a more balanced mix of self-selected and imposed. Our identity is first expressed in a major decision when it is time to leave home. For those who go to college, the decision of which one to attend is influenced by a number of factors: location, cost, academic orientation, etc. But if we hold those constant, the predominant criteria is the goodness of fit between our identity and those who already attend any particular school. On visitations, just watch your child as they walk the campus. They have one question on their minds: do I fit in with these people? Do our identities jibe? The question you ask upon returning to your car, “What did you think?,” will be based on if they see themselves with those people in that place.

As we enter the second quarter of our life—the achievement phase—identity becomes perhaps more important than in any other phase. This includes the years of early twenties to midlife when we stake our claim on the world. When our principal modality is striving. We work; we partner; we make decisions about where to live; we have children; we declare membership in churches and political parties; and, an array of other social, community, and professional organizations. Our list of identifiers naturally peak during this phase of life and provide the capacity to affect two critical contributions to our well-being: belonging and differentiation.

Belonging is a natural and powerful motivation of every human being. More than fitting in, as described in the kid going off to college, belonging is about being adopted into a group (broadly defined) and also about adopting the norms and belief systems of that group. More than an element of our identity, belonging to groups acts to both clarify and limit that which we believe in. Our perspectives and our minds are narrowed by belonging, which in this period of our lives (often described as hectic and complex) serves to simplify our world thereby reducing life’s many sources of anxiety. In the achievement phase of life, belonging has significant benefits for safety, security, and general well-being.

Personal differentiation is also made possible in this phase through our identity. What makes us special? Attractive? How do we stand out? Why are we preferred to other human beings? Companies spend millions of dollars on differentiating their products and services from those of their competitors. As individuals, we do the same thing although most of us prefer to be subtle about it unless our last name is Kardashian. Still others of us stubbornly deny we are seeking differentiation even though the Birkenstock sandals or Nike running shoes on our feet are just another identity marker that yes, defines who we are. Differentiation is natural and inescapable. The Holy Grail of marketing, as I used to advise my clients, was whether or not a product or service found its highest value in contributing in a beneficial manner to the identity of the customer. If it did, both stable demand and price inelasticity (the customer will buy regardless of price) were assured. Ka-ching $!

As we enter middle age—the third quarter and the beginning of the actualization phase of our life—we begin to evolve from striving to thriving. Identity remains important, but we need more than the fruits of striving to achieve a higher state of well-being. This is when meaning and purpose come into higher consideration. Belonging to groups often becomes tiresome. Acquiring status symbols lose their shine. We begin to realize that our prime—at least physically—has passed. Maintaining our physical selves takes greater effort but, the good news is, our mental capacities and capabilities begin to contribute more to our well-being to compensate. It is when we begin our transition from what British psychologist, Raymond Cattell, identified as fluid intelligence to crystalized intelligence, commonly known as wisdom. For many, the actualization phase is the most rewarding of their life. The things we find meaningful in life—from careers to children to our spiritual sense of being—begin to be realized; they come into fruition. Success becomes defined as having a durable sense of standing in the world we claim as ours. Striving, plus this sense of meaning, produce thriving.

Sometime in this third quarter (usually late in the quarter) something else occurs that defines the balance of our lives—that either set up the possibility of transcendence in the last quarter, or send us on a path of physical, mental, and emotional decline into a fourth quarter of suffering where we languish rather than rise to achieve liberation and, ultimately, sweet peace. We either recognize the constraints of our constructed identity and work to shed many of its aspects, or we allow it to harden in a manner that narrows our world further, foreclosing any hope of liberation. Those who fail to recognize that liberation-cum-sweet peace is only possible if we rise above ourselves by shedding our once useful (but now detrimental) identity, will be chained to a treadmill that is no longer moving. They will hit a wall of irrelevance and, too often, spiral into a life of bitterness and depression.

My lesson in this regard came fairly early in my third quarter, but the revelation it provided was not apparent to me until I had completed many years—fifteen-plus years—of reflection. It was my participation in the two-week Wilderness Skills Course at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, Wyoming that set the stage for my revelation. In the first few days of the course, which navigates a piece of the Wind River range of mountains, I thought, what have I gotten myself into? I wanted to go back to Lander and drive away. My motivation for attending at forty-one years old (by far the oldest in the course) was to not only learn wilderness skills, but also learn to follow. Yes, not lead, follow. The contrarian in me thought what better place to learn to follow (after being a leader in business for the prior twenty years) than a course where everyone else was trying to learn to lead. (That part worked out spectacularly well.) When the two weeks came to a close, I was weirdly overwhelmed with a desire to stay in the wilderness and skip the bus ride back to Lander. The revelation that took so many years to kick in was that I had discovered a new sense of euphoria having been stripped of my identity and allowed to form a durable relationship with nature that could not care less about my carefully crafted identity.

In the years that followed the NOLS course, I began, slowly but surely (and largely sub-consciously), to shed my identity. Weirdly, it started with no longer wanting logos on my clothes which, for someone into sports and recreation where logos are everything, was especially challenging. Then, dropping my memberships, affiliations, and associations with all manner of groups, including political parties. My appetite for things—for superficial ‘stuff’—also declined as my wants and desires waned. Moving from Texas to Colorado also allowed me to drop many aspects of my identity just by the act of relocation. Today, I am much less defined in my identity, but also less encumbered to explore life in an open-minded and open-hearted manner. Rather than becoming, I can focus on just being. I am, slowly and deliberately, erasing my slate. Nowhere as clean as the one on the day I was born, but cleaner than it has ever been since. To be clear, I have not lost myself. I still know who I am. I still engage with the world, albeit in a different fashion. The irony is that by shedding the things I allowed to define me, I know myself, and have created the space to honor that self, more than ever before. If others find me perplexing, so be it. It’s my life, not theirs. And, I can set that self aside to sit in a seat of greater awareness to appreciate much more of a world that is both disturbing and enchanting.

The above thesis and framework were developed and synthesized studying a number of cultural anthropologists and psychologists as well as spiritual teachers including Thich Nhat Hanh, Michael Singer, Jeanne-Marie Mudd, Joan Halifax, Adyashanti, and Joseph Goldstein. This is my path to transcendence which, I have to say, has lit many light bulbs for me in the last two years. Probably more so than in any other intellectual/spiritual process I have engaged with in my previous six decades. I feel I have found my path to transcendence. That said, all, or some, or none of this may be applicable for your path. One of the things I have learned is that such pathways to transcendence and sweet peace are as individualized as fingerprints. I share it in the chance it may be beneficial to you, but take it or leave it as you wish.

What I can say is that calm is my new joy. After a great deal of tumult and pain in my life during the last two years, I have found a place of equanimity. The disturbances and discontents that inflicted others no longer afflict me. FOMO (fear of missing out) has been replaced by the equanimity of missing out. Let the rabble roar. If you have triggers, they are yours, not mine. My awareness is elsewhere. My mind is sucking up knowledge like a kindergartner. It is a very different me than the one I left behind. No burdensome expectations or obligations, no doubts, or fears, or anger. Moreover, no hurry. Death will come when it will and I will welcome it in the same manner I welcomed life: with a sense of optimistic curiosity. Whether it is a door or a wall doesn’t matter, because I have my sweet peace in this world and it is simply magnificent.

By |2022-08-17T15:11:10+00:00August 2nd, 2022|General, Recent|0 Comments

Searching for Rainbows

Scared. Overwhelmed. Angry. Hopeless. These are the words Americans are using to describe their lives. The American Psychological Association reports that 87% of Americans feel the last two years have just been a relentless stream of crises without a break. Covid-19, our democracy in peril, war in Ukraine, inflation, gun violence, climate change, and a Supreme Court apparently determined to re-impose medieval cultural norms have Americans focused on survival rather than hopes and dreams for the first time since the 1930s. According to a recent New York Times/Sienna College poll just 13% of Americans believe the country is on the right track. Just when people think it can’t get any worse, it does. Then, it does again. We seem to be in a self-fulfilling spiral of decline.

As the Stoics suggested hundreds of years ago, the key to any crisis is not the crisis itself; rather, how we respond to the crisis. Thus far, we have responded with an array of coping behaviors; we have put our heads in the sand while pointing in any direction other than ourselves to assign blame. The sale of weighted comfort blankets and drugs and alcohol have been big winners. Denial and self-deception are natural by-products of the Age of Deceit that has persisted in America since the early 2000s. As many analysts point out, the irony is that many factors social scientists use to measure human welfare have never been better. The perils of life—even with the pandemic—are at historical lows. And, we have more than enough wealth sloshing around the country and world to solve every problem we face. The problem is something no government or political party, or corporation, or any of today’s organized religions can fix. The problem is personal. The problem is character.

Take a moment and look again at our list of crises. Of the seven named above, only one—Covid-19—is natural, which is to say not caused by humans. This is good news! This means we can mitigate, and/or eliminate every other crisis that threatens our well-being through the principled application of willpower with existing knowledge and resources. In short, leadership. But we can’t do any of this while hiding inebriated under a blanket, and while expecting others to solve our problems. We need to wake up, sober up, reflect on the values and norms that actually did make America great, and demand more—much more—of ourselves. This begins with better decision-making in all aspects of our lives: personal, professional, and social. Above all, we must set aside deceit in all of its forms in every decision we make. Continuing to fool ourselves is not the path to redemption or renewal. We must put truth back on its pedestal where it belongs.

Let’s stop down for a moment so I can explain the elements of decision-making and illustrate its modalities throughout the last hundred years or so in America. All, so we can understand how we got in the mess we are in today, and to find a path out.

People make decisions—both big and small—by accessing their knowledge and beliefs to inform their choice. That sounds pretty straightforward, almost like, “Duh!” However, as one who has studied this process of decision-making to a degree of ad-nauseum, I found it is anything but simple and predictable, let alone straightforward. The model of rational humans quickly falls apart when trying to understand why people do what they do, which is to say the very concept of rational decision-making is, well, irrational. To some degree, this has always been the case, but today it has become normative.

Knowledge is based on empirical facts and experiential truths. This is the realm of decision inputs we gain through education and experience—as a matter of reason. Collectively, let’s call this the head. Beliefs are based on ideas we accept as truths that are acquired through indoctrination and socialization—as a matter of faith. Collectively, let’s call this the heart.

In early twentieth century America, the head was promoted as the dominant set of decision-making inputs. As we emerged from the post-Civil War era and entered the modern industrial age, people were expected to largely set aside the heart in favor of the head that drove what I have termed the “scientification of everything.” The concept of “rational man” was ascendent. From the invention of modern production lines for the automobile to the widespread mandate of scientific method, we Americans thought we could make everything rational and predictable. Coincidentally, it should be of no surprise that religiosity (a completely faith-based “heart” endeavor), while always present at some level in our society, entered a period of remission in the early twentieth century. It was in the private sphere (where it always is), but less so in the public sphere and, after the Scopes Monkey Trials in the 1920s, nearly vanished from the political sphere.

But the heart doesn’t remain quiet forever. In the second half of the twentieth century, it became apparent that the head could only carry us so far. The concept of “rational man” was incapable of dealing with issues like human and civil rights, and also produced whopper mistakes like the popular “domino theory” that justified getting into the Viet Nam War, as well as scientific breakthroughs like DDT that killed pests, but was also killing us. Head-based decision-making needed to elevate its game. It needed to mature from rational decision-making to a higher level of judgment inasmuch as our scientific head didn’t understand enough of an increasingly complex world to avoid making tragic mistakes. Having tapped out the capacity of the head, we reached again for beliefs, or the heart, to improve our game. Inherited truths, which emanate from cultural beliefs carried from one generation to the next, returned to support this need for higher-level judgment. For roughly three decades, we came as close as we ever have to a truly holistic and balanced approach to decision-making. This produced one of the greatest periods of invention, innovation, and wealth creation in U.S. history. Incidentally, heart-based religiosity came rushing back into all three spheres of influence: private, public, and political.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, the scales of decision-making tipped in favor of the heart. Again, unsurprisingly, religiosity (especially more fervent Christian fundamentalism) was at an all time high. This shift collided with another transformational development in technology that proved both a blessing and a curse. This was the dawn of the digital age which, among other things, ushered in much higher levels of productivity resulting in yet higher levels of wealth and affluence. One critically significant negative side-effect of these developments was that the costs of bad decisions were often absorbed into the frothiness of affluence, which created unprecedented slack in the natural system of consequence. Bad decisions went unpunished and the learnings that accompany mistakes were also lost. In hindsight, we were not nearly as smart as we thought—making many poor decisions—without paying the appropriate price. Wealthier does not equal smarter. This is when things really started to go off the rails resulting in the mess—social, economic, and political—we have today.

One might expect that we would adjust our mix of head and heart to meet the decision-making challenges of the day, but without appropriate consequences and the learnings born therefrom, we went in an even more dangerous direction. We set aside knowledge and beliefs—both the head and the heart—in our decision-making and slipped into the realm of greed and delusion. We decided the truth didn’t matter; we entered the Age of Deceit. We started acting like spoiled entitled brats who believed we deserved whatever we wished regardless of any social, economic, political, environmental, or moral consequence. And, we modeled these behaviors for our children and grandchildren.

Today, we look at Millennials and Gen Zs and wonder why they can’t seem to get their act together; why won’t they seize the day and take America to the next level of superpower dominance? But, let’s all stop for a moment and ask ourselves: what have we given them to believe in? Hard work? Personal responsibility? Empathy? Humility? Altruism? Any notion of civics whatsoever? We don’t even teach virtues anymore, let alone model them in our own behaviors. (I know, you and I are exceptions; it’s everyone else who is lame. Big wink.) To make matters worse, we now have a group of leaders at the national level—in government and business and religion—who are some of the most selfish base hucksters of all time. They make the Wizard of Oz, flailing behind his curtain, look like a Rhodes Scholar in a think tank.

I am an ardent advocate of the American Dream. I believe when you consider our traditional American values collectively, their fundamental intention is to assure everyone has the chance to be whatever they want to be. Freedom, equality, liberalism, pluralism—all exist to enable our dreams. However, when we abdicate the truth found in our head and heart—when greed and delusion become fundamental modalities—we destroy confidence in the collection of values and tenets that undergird America. The result? There is no foundation upon which to build one’s dreams. We end up where we are today: feeling disenchanted and forlorn. If we want our children and grandchildren to set the standard for the world to follow, as was the aspiration our parents and grandparents had for us, we need to clean up the mess we have made.

It starts with demanding that the truth returns to the center of our decision-making. And, that the values and tenets that established America are renewed as touchstones in everything we do. Finally, for the Boomers (or older) among us, this should be our final act after which we exit the stage in favor of much younger leaders. Just because modern medicine keeps us churning doesn’t mean we get the last word. Maybe the occasional deep word, but not the last word. It is time for a new generation of leaders to emerge. They won’t be able to rise if we continue to block them. For the first time in our history, the majority of both political parties do not want their frontrunner—Biden or Trump—to run again. Perhaps younger leaders can get a new grip on reality, based in truth, to rebuild America. They will (as we did) make mistakes. And, if they endure consequences they will learn. So, please, Biden, Trump, Schumer, Pelosi, McConnell and all the rest of the geriatric class who hold power in Washington D.C., go home. Redemption and renewal—searching for rainbows—is for the young (and honest) in both head and heart.

By |2022-08-02T14:38:20+00:00July 15th, 2022|General, Leadership|0 Comments

Please Join Me Under One Flag

This July 4th, let’s declare our unity by reclaiming our independence.

I am one of those stubborn political independents who believe that solving problems is more important than winning ideological fistfights, and I deplore politicians whose interest is limited to being a cult leader’s toady. I believe in empowering people to achieve their objectives, rather than oppressing others and bending them to the will of my particular beliefs. I have learned to see Americans as neither Republican nor Democrat, nor any of the other meaningless and often dangerous ways we try to classify people to break them down and treat them differently. Mine is a learned (and often dismissed) disposition in a political system that otherwise demands group affiliation. On the surface, it seems easier to classify people to wage a desired political agenda and affect public policy but, today, it often just inflames conflict and compromises success—especially at the national level. Perhaps it’s just my advancing maturity, but I find little affirming value in belonging to groups, and I wish folks would wave just one flag: the American flag, without changing its colors. Until and when we rally around one flag—with one set of colors: red, white and blue—we will continue on our current course: flirting with authoritarianism in the face of a democracy in chaos. Meanwhile, our adversaries throughout the world lick their chops. Our disunity is their opportunity.

The prevailing mindset in America today is Us vs. Them. Try and find a group today that is not beset by this condition. The other prevailing characteristic many groups share is that they believe they are the exception—that they conscientiously subscribe to inclusive consensus-building practices. But spend more than five minutes in their group discussions and the Us vs. Them mentality quickly percolates to the surface. It is astonishing how fast it rises and equally astonishing how blind participants are to its existence. And don’t dare call them out; you will be banished in a heartbeat. They are like alcoholics who believe that everyone but them are drunks; claimed with cocktail in-hand. As a scholar, I have studied the effects of Us vs. Them righteousness and certitude that historically emanated from organized religions—especially monotheistic religions. I have traced and illustrated religion’s effects on American foreign policy. However, in the last ten years or so, politics has supplanted religion as the locus of righteousness and certitude. There is no need to trace religion to politics; today, politics is religion.

My parents taught me that to exclude people in politics—or any other persuasive endeavor—is foolish if you want to win. Political parties call this the “Big Tent Strategy”; something they give lip service to when attempting to feign inclusion. Candidates today love to judge, shame, and condemn others in a feeble attempt to bolster their standing—especially with donors. They rarely address the needs of their constituents. To me, we are all just humans trying to find a secure, predictable, and fulfilling path to live our lives. Many would call me an outlier, and I am often looked upon with curious contempt from hardcore blinders-on partisans. But the truth is we independents—while only informally and generally involuntarily associated—now make up the fastest growing political segment in America as more folks abandon the quagmire of left/right traditional thinking in favor of political pragmatism. My home state of Colorado calls me “unaffiliated” on the voter rolls as if I am a wayward orphan. However, we outnumber both Republicans and Democrats in the state. We make the purple, purple.

That is not to say we independents are by any means cohesive in our ideological convictions. Our diversity does not lend itself to forming a group, which is both our strength and our weakness. Among independents, you will find a wide range of positions on many issues. Some are independent because Republicans are not conservative enough, while others are because Democrats are not liberal enough. The vast majority, however, sit in the middle-way of America where reason and wisdom and, moreover, calm resides. We are the new jokers in the deck of the traditional two-party system. What we share is the realization that our political system in the United States has completely collapsed rendering our government unable to serve our interests—to support basic public goods that have been the elements of a social contract between the government and the governed since the founding of our country, first put forth by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762. What we also share is a simple and clear proposition that defines what Americans want: stability and the right to self-determination. We want our political leaders to focus on safety, security, fairness, and predictability, and do so in a manner consistent with their oath of office. That’s it.

Sounds simple enough, but there is a natural tension between stability and self-determination that must be understood to balance these aims. Stability requires norms, laws, and structures to assure order. Self-determination tests those institutions as personal liberties must be expressed in a manner that does not violate them or otherwise risk their collapse. Partisan zealots who dominate both parties today have adopted similar strategies: pursue liberties and related political objectives regardless of the institutional guardrails that assure stability in a civil society. Every hot-button issue today—from abortion to guns—are hot for one reason: advocates or adversaries who want to impose their beliefs on others at the expense of stability—of civil society. Historically, shared American values have provided the touchstones to dull the sharp edges of political discourse and support the prospect of compromise. Trump threw those norms away and Democrats have followed his lead. When only you are right and everyone else is wrong, entropy is inevitable.

Traditionally, Republicans have advocated for rules and structure and compliance in hierarchical and often patriarchal regimes of command and control where discipline is more valued than creativity. Democrats have taken a much more laissez faire approach to social and political order where personal liberties and creativity are favored over boundaries, and government exists to nurture, support, and protect such individualism. Today, in many ways those profiles have flipped. Trumplicans don’t want to follow any rules (as modeled by their namesake) and woke-Democrats are imposing new rules (often through shame-based tactics) in a frankly awkward attempt to be the bigger bully. The result? Bullying has become the modality of the dominant-extremes in both parties. And we wonder why people are fleeing politics or, as I have done, rejected both political parties by declaring independence. The question now is which party will get control of their bullies (and attract independent voters like me) in time to win in November? The party that figures that out first could be in power for the foreseeable future.

The irony of the chaos that characterizes all aspects of American life today is that what Americans want from their politicians has never been simpler or clearer. Recent research shows that Republicans want conservative ideas (some of which Trump advocates) without Trump style. They want competence in execution—an ability to actually govern—rather than lies, corruption, and hysterical fear-mongering. Conservative ideas with Eisenhower’s executive capabilities and disposition. As for Democrats, they want the humanity and openness that is safeguarded by democratic institutions and assured by liberal society, which is to say fair, open, and inclusive. They want the fortitude and convictions of Teddy Roosevelt —especially toward the middle class and the environment—with the calm demeanor of Barack Obama. Today, all of us want to see strength and determination in setting America on a new path to sustainable prosperity. We know we are in trouble—no need to scare us further about that. We also know some things must be broken, which include everything from outdated and outmoded congressional rules like the senate filibuster, to our tax code, to narrowing the scope of government in order to right the ship of America. We want to see courage from our leaders and a self-effacing commitment to empowering Americans to pursue their particular American dreams. Is that too much to ask?

Pundits argue that the Republican Party is in disarray with Trump continuing his modality of divisiveness in every political race in America. To my eye, that just means they are as confused as Democrats have always been in seeking any sense of cohesiveness. Traditionally, Republicans are like the duck on the water that appears completely calm and at-ease while paddling like hell beneath the surface where all the organizational work is done to maintain power, like redistricting, voter registration (and suppression), and the appointment of judges and justices. On the other hand, the traditional Democratic duck squawks and flaps its wings creating all manner of surface disturbance—often espousing grievances and claims of victimhood—while it can’t seem to paddle in any particular direction whatsoever. I want a calm and determined duck that glides across the water leaving a smooth wake in its path. Those are the ducks this independent voter will support.

Both parties need to realize that the strength and determination we prefer is found in neither intimidation nor whining. Attempting to bend people to your will (the Republican modality) or extolling grievances and victimhood (the Democratic modality) have this in common: they both convey weakness. Neither bullies nor victims are icons of strength. Some folks will support intimidation in the short run, but when they realize it only benefits party leaders, they become disenchanted. Meanwhile, those attracted to victim narratives similarly are left wondering why they were, in the end, never liberated from their oppression (real or imagined). Strength is necessary to persuade people you can deliver stability and restore self-determination, but it is a strength based in American values that respects its democratic institutions. In short, strength deployed with integrity.

This is where the current Democrat-controlled congress has failed. Americans have easily seen past the provocative slogans and have found plenty of bickering, but little legislative substance. Running around with your hair on fire just leaves one bald and, eventually, out of office. This reality coupled with historical midterm voting patterns stacked against the Democrats will undoubtedly spell disaster for them this November. All, right when the Republican Party is as vulnerable as it has been since Nixon fled the White House on Marine One in August 1974.

Republicans understand how to organize, execute, and win elections. They understand that to get what you want you must have power. However, at the hands of Trump, McConnell, and McCarthy, they have fallen into the abyss of selfishness, dishonesty, and cruelty that is beyond disgusting, it is abhorrent. Just last Friday, the Trump/McConnell-loaded Supreme Court did what it has never done before: it rescinded an established individual right when it overturned Roe v. Wade. Is it any surprise the target was women? They won’t protect children from assault rifles, why would they protect women’s rights? The only shocking thing is that we are shocked. The Republican Party needs a massive purge of their crazies (especially its libertine misogynists), yet it’s mostly nutjobs that are winning primaries because that is what the few who participate at this stage in the process want: the nuttier the better. When a Cheney is the voice of moderation in your party, you might want to pause for a moment of reflection.

What’s surprising today is that neither party has figured any of this out. They have been captured by their extremes who care more about their personal beliefs and grievances than serving Americans. Do we really need to suffer complete societal collapse before we get back to restoring civil society? Leadership really isn’t that complicated when your head and heart are in the right place. That’s what this American wants, and I’ll bet I’m not alone.

Happy Independence Day. Now, go exercise your independence under one flag that is red, white, and blue. It may seem paradoxical that declaring our independence is the pathway to unity, but it is the only avenue I see. Until we realize there can be no Them, only Us, we have no chance of meeting the challenges of the day. Americans have achieved the impossible to save the republic before and we must do so now, again. To my Democrat friends who cringe at waving our flag, get over it. Allowing Republicans to claim the flag as exclusively their own is a strategic political error your party made that has persisted for decades and must end, now. It is your flag too. You are patriots too.

One America, one flag.

By |2022-07-15T13:34:56+00:00June 26th, 2022|General, Leadership|0 Comments

Chasing Life

Some years ago, when I did occasional consulting for businesses, I was tasked with assisting a wealth management company in composing a new long-term strategic plan. The fundamental question of any enterprise is, why are we here? Why do we matter? Why should anyone care? Why, why, why. As you might expect, wealth management firms live in a hyper-quantitative world. If it can’t be measured in dollars, or numbers related to dollars, it didn’t matter. So, you can imagine the consternation I caused when I suggested they were not in the wealth management business; rather, that they were in the well-being business.

Their spreadsheets had no row or column for the qualitative aspects of well-being—of human fulfilment. And, to be fair, their clients didn’t know how to relate to them as wealth managers without talking about money and return on investment. Both sides of the conversation were in a box that, while relevant, was not determinative in crafting a fulfilling life. They were in the business of means, not ends, which also meant they were like everyone else in their business: undifferentiated money managers. I argued that if they raised the level of conversation to one oriented around well-being, they would set themselves apart and attract and retain much more business for the firm. They agreed. They did, and they are fabulously successful today. Trust me when I say the idea was the easy part; they (not I) did the hard work to bring it to realization.

Even today, when we assess the value of a product, service, policy, investment, relationship, or any undertaking in general, our default mode of analysis avoids the squishy components of well-being, welfare, or thriving. These terms do not lend themselves to scorekeeping, which in our Western culture is paramount to measuring success. And yet, these terms capture the essence of our pursuits in life—they emanate from meaning. They are why we are here. I know plenty of folks for whom money and shiny objects, or the next adventure, or new spouse, might make them feel successful, whole, and worthy. They are stuck on a treadmill on which there is no finish line—no magical moment forthcoming when they feel they have arrived in a state of fulfillment, or grace, or peace. They are the proverbial hamster on the paddle-wheel of wants and desires. It is tragic, and yet, it is the manner in which most Americans live their lives.

I have always been a fan of Abraham Maslow’s work on the hierarchy of human needs, first published in 1943 as an article titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Two things most people don’t know about his work. First, he did not put his hierarchy in a pyramidal diagram; consultants who use his hierarchy did that. Second, and more importantly, when he passed away in 1970, he was on the brink of a new addition to the hierarchy: the level of transcendence. As you may recall, the hierarchy he proposed in 1943 began with having physiological needs met, then safety, belonging/love, self-esteem and, finally, self-actualization where one spent their days pursuing inner talent, creativity, and fulfillment. Thanks to Scott Barry Kaufman, a humanistic psychologist, who dug through Maslow’s work papers dating to the time of his death, we now know Maslow was about to update his hierarchy to reveal the next, last, level of human needs.

In effect, in Maslow’s contemplation of transcendence (which theoretically lies beyond self-actualization) he is suggesting a state of mind and presence we might traditionally associate with the after-life in heaven. In his rendering: heaven on earth. (Sign me up for that program!) He described the transcendent state as one of complete absorption disassociated with time and space where the ego is left behind and there are no fears, anxieties, or inhibitions enjoying heightened aestheticism, wonder, awe and surrender while feeling no separation between the self and the world; something akin to what some Eastern spiritual traditions call non-duality. Collectively, he chose the term “peak experience” to describe these events of transcendence which, he believed, “offer the opportunity to see more of the whole truth, unimpeded by the many cognitive distortions evolved to protect us from psychic pain.”[i] He identifies what I would call an event of deliverance from ourselves and the complications and limits imposed by daily life to affect a state of boundless awareness and clarity and love—what gurus throughout history have called a state of enlightenment.

For my own purposes, I breakdown the phases of life into quarters: Preparation, Achievement, Actualization, and Transcendence. While we all continue to require the needs identified by Maslow to be fulfilled to one extent or another in every phase, the modality of our attention and efforts should follow this pattern. That said, many get stuck along the way. Sometimes by themselves, or at the hand of others, or events beyond their control. There are no guarantees on the pathway of life. Indeed, any assurances offered of a smooth ride from one quarter to the next should be met with high skepticism. My own train has been derailed more than once by events largely beyond my control. Generally, by someone whose own life-path was disturbed, or disrupted, or never began with a solid foundation in the preparation phase. For example, if you never gain a sense of durable self-worth in the preparation phase, you will likely stumble—mostly sideways—for the rest of your life. In my personal experience, persons so afflicted often become family wrecking balls. They inflict their own suffering on those they profess to love.

When derailed, all any of us can do is scramble back to our path and hope the wounds will heal such that we can continue to pursue our well-being on our own terms. Maslow believed humans have the capacity to thrive and achieve transcendence before death. He considered waiting until after death to be a conceit and deceit of organized religion. I wake every day to meet the day with the aim of fulfillment, even if it is only to master the otherwise mundane aspects of life. I call it mastery in the moment, one moment at a time. Many of the realities we face today in America and the world are extremely disturbing. We may not be able to affect these realities, but we can manage our relationship with them. Let it be. Let it go. Relax to release and rise. Our traditional metrics of success including all the quantitative measurements of wealth, while necessary to manage the means of satisfying needs, only get us so far. Our higher calling is our well-being. Our highest aim is sweet peace.

[i] Scott Barry Kaufman, Transcend: the New Science of Self-Actualization (New York: Tarcherperigree, 2020), p. 196.

By |2022-06-26T13:32:21+00:00June 19th, 2022|General, Recent|0 Comments

Summer of ???

Summer evenings when the heat breaks, breezes flow, and the sounds of softball in the park drift throughout the avenues beneath the freshly-greened boughs of maples and elms and cottonwoods are America at its best.  In the long days of summer, the sun sets with a sense of stubbornness unlike winter when it sinks even before the family dog has been fed her supper. I live where seasons matter, or at least I think so, although admittedly it may just be because where I live nature still dominates—you can’t ignore its seasons. Maybe in the city seasons are marked less by nature than by changing advertising campaigns and storefront merchandise, or which pro athletes dominate billboards. Those who live in the sunbelt, where I suppose your electric bill knows best what time of year it is, live in a sameness I would find maddening, but to each his/her own. As happy as I am to see a new season come, I am equally happy after a few months to see it go in favor of the next one. Maybe that is when sunbelt folks adjust their shades?

Will this be the summer we have been waiting for since the onset of Covid in early 2020? The Hot Vax Summer where vaxed and waxed and ready to party is the cry of pandemic liberation? The onset of summer for me was accompanied by a big not-so-fast “Gotcha!” Omicron BA.2 cut my liberation short. My first airline trip in almost a year gave me a dose of the Covid crud, accompanied by flight cancellations that are apparently the new norm. I crawled home with enough N95s to boost 3M’s second quarter earnings. I have never known so many people infected with Covid as I do today, but it should be no surprise as everywhere is packed and few bother with masks. My doc put me on Paxlovid, which works well if you can stand having your mouth taste like acid-washed pennies for five days. Thirty pills roughly the size of Hummingbird eggs come in packs of three as big as an appetizer at a high-dollar hipster eatery, which I suppose is a good thing since I was hungry for little else. Those few extra winter pounds went bye-bye fast. Ten days out I am clear, waiting for the other shoe to drop—the Paxlovid relapse bounce—that may be yet to come. But hell, it’s summer!

“Turn on, tune in, drop out” was Harvard professor and LSD advocate Timothy Leary’s call to action that ushered in the Summer of Love in 1967. Open to everything was the basic modus operandi. Sex, drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll was the popular to-do list. The Mamas and the Papas told us to “be sure to wear flowers in your hair” as the Haight Ashbury district in San Francisco became the place to be and be seen. It was an era of similar furor by and between political parties and democratic institutions in America. Violence was usually in the form of bombs—fire bombs, mail bombs, and car bombs—until the next summer, 1968, when assassination-by-gun started trending. Without four-hundred million guns in 1967 America, what else was a psychopath to do? Blow it up! Love was, then as now, limited to sharing with those with whom one agreed politically. Openness always has its limits. At least they weren’t mowing down third graders with assault rifles. Back then, pro-life actually applied to the already-born too, unless you were a member of the Viet Cong. Ah, those simple times! Peace, baby! We survived. Sort of.

Unfortunately, the summer of ’22 may be known for its sadness more than its love. Deadly violence in America and feckless political leadership in red states and at the national level means many more will die. The Supremes are poised to act to save little clumps of cells; at least zygotes can become blastocysts regardless of a woman’s choice in red states. These budding humans will be safe at least until they are born. Blue states are fast becoming havens for heathens. (I am trying to grow my horns now.) Meanwhile, both the Supremes and the senate will assure every angry young man retains their right and access to the guns of war in the event they are offended by a grade school. Cruz, McConnell, McCarthy and friends will continue to ring their cash registers with the blood-money of the gun lobby. The prevailing condition in America today is not openness or free love, it is very dangerous cowardice. We absolutely know what the right things to do are, but we are—collectively—moral cowards. That scene in Uvalde, Texas with hundreds of cops armed with lots of guns and cowboy hats standing around while innocent children had their bodies ripped apart says it all. To quote a common contemptuous Texas saying: “Big hat, no cattle.”

If only Professor Leary and those damn dirty hippies had not offended Tricky Dick Nixon, we would be decades ahead of where we are in employing psychedelics to better treat mental illness and give us all a more pleasant glidepath to end-of-life serenity. Addiction, PTSD, and many other mental disturbances marked by neurotic ruminations would clearly be better managed by psychedelics than with guns and alcohol with a splash of meth. The gun-loving Republicans who claim mental health as the primary issue causing gun violence in America should jump on the psychedelic bandwagon. Or, at least take a hit now and then. (Can you imagine McConnell on Ecstasy?) It feels like if we could migrate the American psyche back towards an even-keel center and away from the lunatic fringe we might be able to save ourselves. All anger does is fill politician’s pockets and keep funeral homes busy.

But, here we are: shame, suffering, and sadness are what we have and, arguably, what we deserve. The Age of Deceit—of lying to ourselves and compromising fundamental American values—has come home to roost. No outside enemy did this to us, we did this to ourselves. Yes, Xi is dangerous and Putin is evil, but our wounds are self-inflicted. While they would love to take credit for our current circumstances and consequences, we have only ourselves to blame. We did a poor job of picking our leaders. Most of us didn’t even participate in our democracy. We pointed at each other to play blame-and-shame.  When everyone is a victim in their own mind, who is left to take responsibility? I am not a Pollyanna about fixing this mess. I know it will take hard work and harder truths. But, if we don’t start calling ourselves out now, the first better day in America will continue—always—to be tomorrow.

Now, it’s summer. Go put flowers in your hair, and maybe gnaw on a ’shroom or two. I hear the game in the park might go into extra innings.

By |2022-06-19T13:04:03+00:00June 7th, 2022|General, Leadership|0 Comments

Finding Home

The concept of home is perhaps the most comforting of any we summon when we feel the need for safety and comfort and the nurturing presence of others we regard as family. In past American generations, home was a given: it was where you grew up then grew old. It was immutable. It was a place one could neither choose for or against; it just was. Seasons changed and generations passed, but home was home.

My grandparent’s generation were the last Americans to experience home as a static concept. The Greatest Generation who followed were the first to move beyond to introduce the idea that home was a place to be decided upon rather than inherited. World War II, and the rise of the United States as a superpower, both allowed and, at times, required the displacement of family members to form new homes and traditions at locations that were often great distances from the family homestead, as those sanctuaries of heritage were known. From the 1960s onward, the sanctity of permanence assured by family homesteads was diluted and dispersed and, no matter how hard we tried to reestablish new homesteads, it proved impossible to recreate the multi-sensory characteristics of what we had lost as we pursued the ambitions and tribulations of modern life.

As a boy, I never felt more at home than on my maternal grandparents windowed-in front porch in rural South Dakota where I would often nap after busy mornings tailing my grandfather. Tall elms shaded the yard while mourning doves cooed. Gophers scampered to and fro as the chase was always on. My grandfather gently rocked in his Stickley-styled chair while the livestock market prattled on his small AM band radio providing a hint of structure from a distant world. As I lay on the porch swing anchored to the slat-wood ceiling by chains above, the creak of the swing synched up with the rhythm of his chair as the warm alfalfa-scented breeze gently caressed my grandmother’s white lace curtains. We were both home; an unspoken generation-skipping bond I still cherish today and summon in my heart when I need the comfort of refuge.

Regrets? Yes, I have a few. I suspect I am not alone when I say I have struggled to establish that sense of home that seemed effortless to my grandparents. I regret embracing transience over permanence. My generation couldn’t be bothered with deep roots. The faster we moved the more successful and fulfilled we thought our lives would be. We failed (or at least I failed) to provide an enduring sense of home for my children. We built bigger and better houses, but seldom established homes. Today, the vast majority of Americans have residences, but no home. Of course, “homeless” is not how we describe them, yet that is what they are.  Homeless is a term invented during my lifetime to describe those without shelter. People have suffered throughout history from lacking shelter and, as during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, were forced to leave their homestead, but the concept of home endured—it traveled. And, once the forces of displacement resolved, many returned to that same place to reclaim it as home. Today, most Americans have no idea where home is; in many cases because it never existed.

The lack of home in this traditional sense is seen by many as the inherent cost of progress. But, have we progressed? American society is falling apart. There is no dimension of its structure I can point to and claim, “Look there: stability!” Many point to the decline of religious faith as the source of instability. Others are threatened by people who don’t look like them and aim their blame there. Still others see technology—at once enabling and empowering—as the source of societal ills. The truth is (as always) partly here, partly there, and somewhere in between. I will suggest the disorientation and chaos we are experiencing today is due to the fact we are all like individual boats—captained alone—whose compasses can’t find home. We are subject to prevailing winds that push us about but not one vessel on the vast water of America has an anchor. No way to arrest our drift or pause to set a new course. No capacity to sit still. No way to find the safety and comfort and the nurturing presence of others we regard as family. No home.

I have a back-pocket thesis about cultures I have witnessed—like most villages in Italy—where generational homes still exist. Where home still happens. When I have been fortunate to observe these places, I am filled with that warm sense of permanence their citizens enjoy while also feeling that pang of lament for what I, and we as Americans, have lost. I fantasize about moving there and spending the rest of my life basking in the presence of home. I feel the same way in Ireland, which many generations ago was a place some of my ancestors called home. My thesis is that these are cultures that are well ahead of America. That’s right: not behind, ahead. They are cultures once cursed by the same pattern of success and downfall America is now experiencing. They too lost their sense of home through empire collapse, war, and famine. Then, they came home. And, stayed there. Yes, they go out into the world to achieve an expanded sense of awareness, but then they come home. Maybe there is a lesson in there for us.

On my own now, I feel an obligation to stay home—to stay put unless traveling to expand my own awareness or support my family that is dispersed from coast to coast. It’s my nod to the wisdom of the Italians and Irish. I chose the Colorado Rockies, or perhaps they chose me. It is my sanctuary from the madness of crowds; the disenchanted, angry, and too-often violent people who are destroying America. A cop-out? Maybe, but so be it. I have also learned, through deep contemplation, that establishing home at this stage of my life requires that I remain in the seat of Self in the traditions that regard consciousness as the essence of being. My pillow to sit on wherever I may (physically) be. In this conceptualization, home is where I am, wherever that may be at any particular time. Mystical? Damn right. It is imperfect—not my grandparent’s porch—but it works for me.

I will leave you today with my poem, “The Fading Light.”

 

My wake, once deep and frothy, recedes now—ripples to glass.

Wisdom swells in its place, washing the stains of life away.

Hands hardened by toil and conflict give way to a softer heart,

beating to the delicate rhythm of tranquility.

Alone with thoughts both grand and small,

mediated by memories of triumph and loss.

Cast as a voyeur now to the victories and defeats of others.

Eyes fixed on the tumbledown of humanity.

Will they find their way, or consume themselves?

Time knows but remains, for the moment, silent.

My mark fades now into the twilight of obscurity.

Just enough light to find my way out as the curtain falls.

 

Have a wonderful week ahead. Until my pen draws ink, again.

By |2022-06-07T14:19:17+00:00May 22nd, 2022|General|0 Comments

Dissonance, Disequilibria & Power

“What the hell is going on with (fill in the blank)?” is a question I have heard (and myself asked) often in the last few years. There may be a shortage of computer chips, childcare, housing, rental cars, and building materials, but there is no shortage of things that just don’t make sense. When our expectations are met by realities that are wildly discordant, anxiety flourishes and leaders scramble. It is very hard to fix something that can’t be explained. Dissonance becomes a source of cultural malaise. Disequilibria, which economists argue is nearly always a short-term phenomenon, causes wild swings in pricing as markets attempt to settle on an intersection of supply and demand. Collectively, these disturbances to normalcy create gaps and pathways to be exploited by mercenary actors who create all kinds of mischief as they extract wealth and power from instability. The vast majority of us stand by and become innocent victims; too often, collateral damage.

The malaise reported by most Americans today, which contradicts relatively positive economic data on employment, wages, and asset values, is evidence of anxiety that emanates from what we cannot yet tabulate, but know in our hearts: the world we thought we knew is over. Today’s world is one where power politics trumps economics, demographics, science, social norms, the rule of law, and even morality. Where reason is torqued beyond recognition in favor of coercion to subjugate—to bring to heel—adversaries who, in many cases, were previously treated as worthy citizens of a united realm of freedom and protected by established norms and laws.

In the last few years, the Trump worldview has metastasized where power is both a means and an end, and it has spread to both ends of the political spectrum: right and left. Trump’s attempted January 6th coup, followed by Putin’s World War II-ish styled invasion of Ukraine, and Alito’s triumphantly patriarchal draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade are of the same modality: coercive power deployed to destroy norms, laws, lives, and liberties. We might expect such bald-faced hostility from Trump and Putin, but a Supreme Court justice? Alito’s opinion is more like a political rant than considered judicial position. It’s as if he is a candidate trying to fire up a political base. In it you will find anger, arrogance, and even belligerence clearly unbecoming of a justice on the Supreme Court. Power politics ignores all of the guardrails of civil society and it has now permeated every institutional corner of our political system—including the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court—that traditionally existed to keep nefarious actors at bay.

Getting past this pervasive retrogression to power politics that is underway in America and the world, and which aims to set the clock of humanity back more than half-a-century, will require, among other things, an unflinching determination to assert the will of truth. Marching with clever slogans on signs will not prevail over those drinking shots of power like bro-boys at a bachelor party. Their power-inebriated state will only fuel their belligerence toward those they wish to subjugate. As each of Trump, Putin, and Alito have recently done, they will claim victimhood to provide themselves with a veil (however sheer) of protective moral authority. Yes, claiming “witch hunt,” “Nazi aggression,” and “cancel culture” is a slight-of-hand designed simply to grab a slice of moral legitimacy. Those who live in carefully constructed and maintained information bubbles crafted by these types of actors will stupidly, but fervently, go along. The rest of us need to wake up, organize, and elect those who will recover our institutions of normalcy from the grasp of bad actors.

I know, I hear you, I am tired of this shit too. I am tired of being lied to. I am tired of watching people get away with it. I am tired of watching the progress of generations squandered. I am tired of watching people who are in a position to affect such a recovery of our institutions preening under the lights of cable TV—more concerned with their exposure to potential donors than saving America. I am tired of feeling ashamed every time I think of how I might explain how my generation let this happen in make-believe conversations with my dead ancestors and real time conversations with my kids. My psyche and my conscience spend too much of the day and night beating each other up. On too many days, humanity just wears me out.

For the foreseeable future, calm may have to replace joy as the definition of happiness as it was during my grandparent’s day. Eyes often reveal the disposition of generations. My maternal grandmother, Lunetta Belle Stinehart Goodfellow, had soft brown eyes that seldom were raised high enough to be level with the horizon. Downcast, yet determined; perched above lips that were perpetually pursed, my grandmother’s eyes expressed what was important to her: getting through the challenges of the day with a stern sense of resolve wrapped in the puritanical disposition of a committed Methodist who knew (or at least hoped) the afterlife might bring joy after enduring Word War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Her self-image was never about herself—it was communal. It was never “this is me,” it was only ever “this is us,” where “us” was family and community.

My father, John Reynolds Steding, a member of the so-called “Greatest Generation” whose eyes were also brown, seldom cast his below the horizon. His disposition was less about getting through than going beyond, which may be why he was an aeronautical engineer and was instrumental in the U.S. space program. Still, his self-image remained embedded in the concept of “us” but was larger. “Us” was indeed family and community, but it was also very much about country. The invention of nuclear weapons raised everyone’s eyes above the horizon. “Incoming” was not a train arriving at the station, it was a nuclear warhead inbound from the Soviet Union. Life was allowed to expand beyond the limits of his parents’ generation, propelled by America’s emergence as a superpower, but it was bounded by the prospect of human annihilation.

My eyes are blue (go figure). My generation—the Boomers—were the first generation to dismiss “this is us” in exchange for “look at what I did.” Not we, I. Boomers blame Millennials for this shift from the collective to the individual, but no, it was us. We were hyper-individualists who waged our battles as entrepreneurs and solo practitioners while often disregarding the wisdom of safety nets. We were loosed upon the world as free-agents who found both guidelines and guardrails as nuisances to be largely ignored. Forget the horizon, our eyes danced up and down, side to side, like a junkie juiced on amphetamines. No one wanted to have an opportunity elude their field of vision. Given our rather manic dispositions we, ironically but necessarily, became wizards of risk management. As pendulums swing, it did when we became parents. Us Boomers—who considered independence as a condition that should be sprinkled with steroids—then turned about and raised the most dependent generations (Millennials and Zs) of all time.

My daughter (a Z) received a double-dose of blue eyes (with huge eyelashes to match) that are frankly, stunning. Millennials and Zs took the Boomer notion of “look at what I did” and amped it up, loudly but simply, to just “look at me!” The eyes of her generation too often stare into that small camera lens fixed on the back of a smartphone that represent the window to a future determined by algorithms. Which is, sadly and most certainly, unsustainable. (See: social media.) But in her eyes, I also see question marks within the reflected candescent halo ring of the Zoom lighting; curiosity mixed with a generation-skipping resolve that Lunetta Belle would easily recognize. Millennials and Zs may feel a sense of whiplash under today’s crisis-level challenges, but their gaze is not fixed, nor are their minds sclerotic. They understand the dynamics of fluidity and, with a nimble sense of determination, believe they can send the world turning in a better direction. In the face of current events, we need them to come into their own, and fast. The rest of us need to get out of their way.

Today, abundance is backsliding to a return to scarcity. Capital markets view the world as much less valuable—trillions less—than it was just four months ago. Bad luck has become an expectation rather than the occasional nuisance. Risk has a new locus that is never far away from imposing its consequences. Truth is under attack in every corner of the world. We must acknowledge the reality of power politics: it has launched a scourge of inhumanity that is submerging the world in a bile of hate. From abusing flight attendants to dropping bombs on children’s hospitals, we must stand together to fight inhumanity rising from dissonance, disequilibria, and chaos that empowers tyrants and zealots. We must summon what energy we have left to support the next generations of leaders—the Millennials and Zs—to save their own futures.

We will likely have to give up the big highs to avoid the depths of existential lows. We must settle for calm as the new joy. Above all else, we have to get back to the “this is us” disposition of older generations. Or, we can don red MAGA caps and learn to goose-step march in May Day parades on the Washington Mall. We do have a choice. For now.

By |2022-05-22T17:11:06+00:00May 10th, 2022|General, The New Realities|0 Comments
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